Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 2

The United States' Use of Drone Strikes

by Joshua Carson

(Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.com)

(Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.com)

In part 1, we addressed the criteria for a just war. In this post, we will examine how the United States conducts drone strikes, the authority under which they are conducted, and the government's transparency (or lack of transparency) in reporting these strikes.

How does the United States conduct drone strikes?

The Obama administration conducts drone strikes under the authority of a 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorizes the president…

"…to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."[1]

This AUMF is open-ended in time, has been in effect longer than any other AUMF in US history, and is the largest in scope of any AUMF in US history.[2] The interpretation of the AUMF to authorize international drone strikes began during the administration of George W. Bush and has been carried on by President Obama. This AUMF could, in theory, authorize the continued use of drone strikes, and other methods of counter-terrorism, indefinitely.

It is appropriate for US citizens, including the legislative and judicial branches of their government, to demand that the CIA and executive branch make public and frequent reports on the details of their use of drones, but the relatively few reports that the government has made can hardly be trusted. Government reports of the alleged circumstances surrounding the US use of drones, especially regarding their victims, differ from reports by investigative journalists.

Perhaps the closest thing that comes to an official stated policy within a government document is the 2010 National Security Strategy, a document produced by the Executive Branch that details the strategies and policies with which the executive branch will protect national security interests. Regarding the use of military force, it says that, "…we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can…whenever force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy…"[3] This 2010 report, which is required to be submitted by the President on a yearly basis, is the only one given by President Obama and only the third report given since the beginning of the Bush administration in 2002.[4] As it stands, this report does not refer specifically to drones, but it would be an appropriate place to document a clear policy for their use in combat situations.

The reports given by US officials are often vague and without detail. Thus, this paper relies heavily on the work of independent and investigative journalism. Humans who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the drones themselves pilot them via remote control. The drones can stay in the air for over 14 hours, capable of hovering over a desired area, and are equipped with Hellfire missiles, which have a blast radius of 15-20 meters.[5] Additionally, the pilot targets and directs the drone's weapons using a video feed that, by the time it is played for the pilot, is a delayed depiction of the real-time events on the ground.[6] While these drones are more precise and accurate than older methods of combat, such as bombings and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, and while their pilots can even divert their missiles at the sight of a noncombatant[7], their lack of precision has frequently led to civilian casualties.

In June 2011 John Brennan, who was then Homeland Security deputy advisor and is now director of the CIA, said that there had been no casualties in the drone program for almost a year.[8] This, however, contradicts several investigative reports. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism released a report about a month after Brennan's statement showing that in the year leading up to the report there were 25 "strikes where civilian deaths have–or are highly likely to have happened…" in Pakistan alone. The report further stated that 45 civilians died in 10 of those strikes, six of whom "were children under 16 years old."[9]

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) also has more recent data on the reported deaths and injuries from drone strikes. For example, their data shows that the US conducted 72-84 confirmed drone strikes in Yemen from 2002-2014. In those strikes, 371-541 people were killed, including 64-83 civilians, seven of whom were children (15.3%-17.2% civilians and 82.7%-84.6% militants). The BIJ reports that from 2004 to 2014 the CIA conducted 405 drone strikes in Pakistan, 354 of which were conducted under President Obama. In those strikes 2,400-3,888 total people were killed. Of those killed in Pakistan 416-959 were civilians and 168-204 were children (17.3%-24.6% civilians and 75.4%-82.7% militants).[10]

Despite these alarmingly high numbers of civilian casualties, "…in over a decade of carrying out lethal drone strikes, the US administration has consistently refused to provide a clear, detailed accounting of the human toll of its covert campaigns that can be compared to independent monitoring…," instead describing the occurrence of civilian casualties as "exceptionally low."[11] The targets of these drone strikes and how they are determined are not always made public but rather are drawn from a secret kill list, each strike being approved finally and specifically by President Obama himself.[12]

A vast amount of information is available on drone strikes from independent sources, and it would serve individuals and communities (both secular and those of faith) to investigate them.[13]

Proceed to "Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 3: Do US drone strikes meet the just war criteria?"

(See this bibliography for a helpful list of introductory materials, many of which are cited in this series.)

Josh Carson is Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, PA, and is a Sider Scholar & Ayres Scholar with ESA while working on his M.Div. at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University. Read also his "Demons of the Skies," an article that looks at drones as literal demons.


[1] Jennifer K. Elsea and Matthew C. Weed, "Declarations of War and Authorizations for the Use of Military Force: Historical Background and Legal Implications," Congressional Research Service (April 18, 2014), 102-3.

[2] Ibid., 15. Ken Gude, "Understanding Authorizations for the Use of Military Force," Center for American Progress (September 24, 2014).

[3] "National Security Strategy," The White House, Washington D.C., May 2010, 22.

[4] National Security Strategy Archive.

[5] Michael Zenko, Reforming U.S. Drone Policies, Council on Foreign Relations: Center for Preventative Action, Special Report No. 65. (New York, 2013), 6. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (2012), 10.

[6] Stanford and NYU, Living Under Drones, 9.

[7] Scott Shane, "C.I.A. Is Disputed on Civilian Toll in Drone Strikes," New York Times, August 11, 2011.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Chris Woods and Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Get the Data: Twenty-five deadly strikes," The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 18, 2011.

[10] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, "Get the Data: Drone wars."

[11] Alice K. Ross, "Documenting Civilian Casualties" in Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues, edited by Marjorie Cohn (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2015), 103.

[12] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will." The New York Times, May 29, 2012.

[13] See the bibliography linked above for a number of very helpful titles, including the volumes authored by Scahill and edited by Cohn. They provide a wealth of information on the subject. Additionally, a great deal of information can be found by searching online articles and reports from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The New York Times, and The Atlantic.

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